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Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Der Freischütz (1817) [134:04]
Rudolf Schock (tenor) – Max
Elisabeth Grümmer (soprano) – Agathe
Lisa Otto (soprano) – Ännchen
Karl Christian Kohn (baritone) - Caspar
Hermann Prey (baritone) – Ottokar
Gottlob Frick (bass) - Hermit
Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Berlin Philharmonic/Joseph Keilberth
rec. April, September 1958, Grunewald Kirche, Berlin. ADD
EMI CLASSICS 2088212
[65:27 + 68:37] 
Experience Classicsonline


Keilberth’s classic Freischütz, long unavailable, returns to the catalogue at budget price in EMI’s Opera Series. It is most welcome to have it back again, but I wonder if its absence has made it seem more precious than it merits?

Freischütz’s significance is well known. With this work Weber virtually invented German Romantic Opera. If its innovations seem unremarkable now that is because they were adopted so wholesale by Weber’s successors. Without Freischütz the works of Wagner would have been unthinkable. For all its significance it has had very few successful recordings. This is the first that has remained in the catalogue and it has set a very high standard to live up to. The early stereo sounds good for its age, though it is very bright to modern ears and it can sound a little too brash, especially in big choral moments. 

The best thing about the set is the solo singing. The cast clearly love this opera and Keilberth has trained them well. The crowning glory is the Agathe of Elisabeth Grümmer. Her big voice suits Agathe’s stature well, but she is not afraid to tone it down for her character’s moments of nerves in Act 3. Leise, leise is extremely beautiful and the purity of her tone translates into sound the white virginal quality that Agathe is meant to represent. Next to her Lisa Otto is a good foil, like Despina to Fiordiligi. She plays the coy soubrette convincingly in Act 2, and she sounds truly nervous when the funeral wreath arrives in Act 3, obviously trying to put a brave face on the bad omen. 

The men are just as good, especially the Max of Rudolf Schock, a Heldentenor who is not afraid of subtlety. He captures the character’s frustration in the opening scene and his nervousness in Act 2 as he first deceives Agathe then descends to the horror of the Wolf’s Glen. His big Act 1 aria, Durch die Wälder, is a really insightful character study rather than a mere showpiece. In the first half he is heroic yet frustrated at his failure to shoot accurately, while his voice darkens worryingly for the second half as he considers the danger of falling to the powers of darkness. Kohn is a suitably villainous Caspar, while Ernst Wiemann’s resonant bass oozes authority as the old Cuno, rather shaming the somewhat bland Prince Ottokar of Hermann Prey. Frick booms portentously as the mysterious Hermit, making a convincing Deus ex Machina of the role. The chorus rollick away happily, clearly enjoying themselves hugely, and who wouldn’t in these numbers? The orchestra’s contribution is well planned and expertly played too. 

So what’s the problem? Well, Keilberth for a start. The conductor has shot back to fame with the release of the Testament Ring, forcing a reappraisal of his relatively low status, but this recording just didn’t convince me. His control of tempi is “flexible” throughout: the Overture is all over the place, especially the slow opening section and, while he pulls it together for the faster conclusion, this is difficult to forgive in one who is held up as an authority in this sort of repertoire. Furthermore, his grasp of structure, so crucial in an opera which is broken up by so much dialogue, is sketchy at best. The finale lacks a sense of drive or direction, and even the Wolf’s Glen scene feels unstable where it demands the hand of an expert to keep it steady. The production, so praised by others, left me feeling cold. At no point did my scalp prickle during the Wolf’s Glen scene, as it surely should. The balance of sound is disappointing too, as the casting of the magic bullets seemed merely to consist of shouting to little effect! Other effects, such as Caspar’s whispering to Samiel or the Satanic laugh after the eagle is shot, just sound daft. If my judgements sound harsh then it’s worth remembering that this is being recorded at the exact same time that John Culshaw was working wonders in Vienna with the Decca Rheingold, and listening to this I often found myself regretting that Culshaw never turned his talents to producing this most atmospheric of operas. 

So while there is much to enjoy here I can’t abandon my preference of Carlos Kleiber’s DG recording, sporting solo singing every bit as good as (if not better than) here, with a much more atmospheric recording and Kleiber’s idiomatic conducting. I’m afraid the years haven’t improved this issue, but that shouldn’t stop you enjoying it for what it is, and its price is very attractive.

Simon Thompson


 


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